In a Company Town, He Raises Tough Questions About Company Practices

American Heroes profile: Jim Bradley

  • Frank Kuznik
  • Aug 01, 1998
Ask Jim Bradley to name his most significant accomplishment in nine years of environmental activism in Michigan´s Upper Peninsula and he´ll offer a modest but telling reply. "I think the fact that our group is still together is quite an accomplishment," he says. "Running an environmental group in a company town is really hard to do."

Bradley lives in Ontonagon County, a lush, thinly populated stretch of the north woods that traditionally has been dominated by its major employers: Stone Container, a paper mill in the town of Ontonagon, and Copper Range, a mining operation in nearby White Pine. As director of FOCUS, a watchdog group he helped found, Bradley has been a persistent critic of the companies´ pollution-related practices. He has won improvements but not many friends, particularly since Copper Range closed in 1995, putting 1,000 people out of work.

"I can´t begin to tell you the amount of flak that Jim takes," says Dave Anderson, executive director of Flintsteel, a Michigan environmental consulting firm. "But he´s always had broad shoulders. If there´s an environmental issue in the county, you can bet that Jim will be involved."

Born and raised in Upper Michigan, Bradley, 50, is an outdoor enthusiast who for much of his life took for granted the natural riches along the southern shoreline of Lake Superior. His introduction to environmentalism came in 1989, when the Mead Corporation proposed building a paper mill on the Ontonagon River, practically in his backyard.

A subsequent campaign gave birth to FOCUS, which succeeded in keeping out the paper mill but began to disband once the crisis had passed. Convinced of the need for ongoing vigilance, Bradley assumed a leadership role and reenergized the group. Since then FOCUS has provided support for a lawsuit brought by the National Wildlife Federation and one of its affiliates, the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, to stop toxic pollution from Copper Range´s smelting facility. The lawsuit concluded successfully in 1995 with a $5.1 million settlement that included a trust to pay for projects to protect habitat. FOCUS is currently assisting Stone Container in working with the community to improve pollution-control efforts.

"Just getting Stone Container to sit down with us is major progress," notes Bradley. "Four years ago, when we first approached them about the tremendous odor problem in the community, they wouldn´t even admit there was one."

If staying power has given the group credibility, so has Bradley´s style. He eschews a single-issue approach to environmental problems, framing them instead as quality-of-life issues that affect the entire community. "Jim is not a professional ´environmentalist.´ He´s a man who simply cares a great deal about the long-term health of his community," says Laura Rose Day, manager of NWF´s Lake Superior Project. "We rely on him to help us identify the important environmental issues in his area."

Early on as an activist, Bradley learned that standard organizing techniques can be counterproductive in company towns. Opposition meetings and confrontations that had been effective in keeping a paper mill out of neighboring Baraga County created more enemies than supporters in Ontonagon.

"There were many people with small businesses who had a lot to gain from a large facility coming to town," Bradley says. "You can´t get in their faces. It just adds fuel to the fire."

Bradley continues to work with area leaders on a number of local issues. "Most of what goes on in small communities is decided at public meetings," he says. "If you go to them and understand the issues, you can influence the process."

After discovering that the local landfill is being used as a dump site for solid waste from Wisconsin and Minnesota, FOCUS is now researching ways to limit those shipments. Bradley also hopes a measured approach will persuade Stone Container to clean up its odor and effluent problems. Mindful that Ontonagon County cannot afford to lose any more jobs, he is working to find an intersection of common interests. "We´re hoping to find a way for the company to operate profitably and still do something about emissions," says Bradley, a cable-television engineer by trade.

The juxtaposition of his different roles can confuse people who have typecasted Bradley. But it reinforces the primary lesson he himself has learned over nearly a decade of activism. "Don´t label anybody," he says. "Even people who were once your adversaries, once you get to know them, are really good folks."

Washington writer Frank Kuznik is a regular contributor to this magazine.

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